1 – The Greatest Short Story Ever Told
“So he told them this parable.”
I’m a sucker for a story. Always have been. When I was young, my parents insisted I had a crush on the librarian. I must confess that I visited the librarian with ulterior motives. I did not go to see her, only to taste her wares.
I remember how it all began. Each Friday afternoon an event took place during the very early years of my journey through an English public school. The schoolteacher had a boyfriend who was majoring in ancient history at the nearby university. He came to visit her each Friday afternoon. He invariably came early, so she put him to work. As the school week was about to close, we would gather in a corner of the classroom and he would tell us stories from the world of Greek history and mythology. He told us tales about Spartans, and Marathon, and Athens and Thermopolae. We heard about Ulysses, Helen of Troy and the Wooden Horse. I was marked for life.
When I attended college I majored in English. Not that I liked grammar, mind you. But I was addicted to the art of the storyteller. In seminary and in graduate studies I focused on the stories found in the Old Testament. It may be that I chose to invest my energies there because it was filled with hundreds of great stories. As a pastor for 25 years it was my children’s stories that seemed to get the most comment. As a professor for 20 years, it has been leading students into that great narrative, unfolded chapter by chapter in both Testaments, that has brought me my greatest job satisfaction. When I became a parent, it was telling stories and reading stories that became my favorite parental task.
Some years ago I was asked by Light & Life magazine to introduce their readership to the ten books that had most affected my life. The first four books on the list happened to be all novels written by superb storytellers. The human mind is always asking for a list of the best. A short time ago we survived millennial fever. Everyone with a microphone and camera was asking for the past millennium’s most famous people. Which were the greatest movies of all time? Who were the greatest athletes in each sport? Who made the most profound difference in the last year, century or millennium? One of the programs that was under consideration at the college where I recently taught was, “The Great Books Curriculum”. The plan was to introduce students to the greatest books that have helped shape Human Civilization. Of course, the debate is on as we try to create the list of those volumes that are the counted among the greatest.
Some years ago I was asked a similar question, “What is the greatest short story ever written?” There were many contenders that come to mind. So how do we choose? The test of a story’s greatness is, how long has it endured in the minds of the millions? Does it have the same effect year after year, century after century, never losing its power to effect human life? Today’s hit parade or best seller’s list will sink into oblivion soon. Some songs and stories are great for a day, but to be great for a century or for a millennium is a far more demanding test.
I want to vote for the story that has come to be known as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son” told by Jesus in the Gospel of St. Luke in the New Testament. As a short story it is super-short. In most English translations it comes in at about 500 words long, and takes less than two minutes to read. Just in case you have forgotten the story, here it is as found in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
Luke 15:11- 32
There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’” So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.
Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.
Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
I refer to the parables in Luke chapter 15 as stories. I need to add a note of caution. The words “story” and “tale” make us think of fictional accounts. And it is true that each parable that Jesus tells us is pure fiction. We may think of stories as entertainment: the purpose of most tales told around a campfire. The better writers, however, are never quite content to think of themselves as “mere” entertainers. They often carry a weightier purpose than simply our pleasure. The great writers of fiction frequently serve as the prophets of the day, showing us ourselves and showing what consequences will flow out of our attitudes and actions. If this is true in the better fiction of our novelists, it is even more true of the parables of Jesus.
But parables have had a hard time in getting their message heard. The stock definition of a parable is “an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.” Then the sub-commentary goes on to tell us that Jesus used simple stories to make complex ideas easier to understand. But this may be deceiving and may cause us to mis-read the stories that Jesus tells.
God says to his prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 6:8-11) “Go and say to this people, ‘Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people fat and their ears heavy and shut their eyes; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” These words were spoken at the calling of the prophet to be God’s spokesman to his estranged people. They are words of pessimism telling the prophet that the people will not want to listen to him.
Part way into his ministry in Galilee, Jesus quotes these very same words to his followers. For some months Jesus has been teaching the content of the Sermon on the Mount in village after village. His words are understandable, though very difficult to follow! Then one day he changes his entire modus operandi. He begins to use parables instead of straight teaching. His disciples are puzzled. Notice Matthew’s version of these words:
And the disciples came, and said unto him, “Why do you speak unto them in parables?” He answered and said unto them, “Because it is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whoever has, to him shall more be given, and he shall have abundance: but whoever has not, from him shall be taken away even that which he has. Therefore I speak to them in parables: because seeing they do not see; and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says, ‘You shall indeed hear but never understand; and you shall indeed see but never perceive: For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed; lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see: and your ears, for they hear. For truly I say to you, That many prophets and righteous men have desired to see those things which ye see, and have not seen them; and to hear those things which ye hear, and have not heard them.” (Read Mark 4:10-12, 13, 33-34, Luke 8:9-10, 10:21, John 12:3-4, Acts 28:24-28 for other versions of these same words.)
Who are the ones that get straight instruction? They are the ones who already have chosen to follow Jesus. Who are the ones to whom Jesus speaks in parables? They are the ones who are still outside the Kingdom. These include the cynics, the scoffers, the curiosity seekers, the disinterested, the spectators and those who still hesitate to follow him. The poet Emily Dickinson writes [i]
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually,
Or every man be blind –
“Tell all the truth but tell it slant, Success in circuit lies.” That is what a parable does. It tells the truth slant. It conceals at the very same time it reveals. It offers truth in disguise. It arouses curiosity about itself, and causes the thoughtful to think. It makes a person suspect that there is more to the story than meets the eye. But it also, as G. K. Chesterton says, causes truth to stand on its head to get attention. The parables are intended to shock us or startle us by describing us to ourselves or giving us a different portrait of God than we presume to be true, or contrasting the ways of the Kingdom of God with those of our own kingdoms. These parables are instruments that God chooses to use to re-engineer our lives by changing our minds.
Sometimes the story told is a corrective to a cherished idea, and we often need to ask, what idea is being bounced on its head? These stories that Jesus tells almost always have a sharp edge to them. They are time-bombs dropped into old and worn out ideas or practices. They are bombs in that they are intended to destroy ideas that have become destructive to humanity’s wellbeing. They are time-bombs because they do not explode immediately, but only at a later time when conditions are right. Parables are like a virus that inveigles itself into our lives and only later will their full effect be realized.
The story of the father and his two sons is no innocent story told simply for our pleasure. On the surface it appears to be such a story. But this story has a very sharp edge that slices across a viewpoint held by much of humanity. So be careful as you explore this story, you may never recover.
[i] Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1961) Poem #1129. p. 506